Gabby Douglas: Watch, there’s a faith story in there

The Internet can be both a cruel and beautiful place, like anything else in this world.

Perhaps you might resonate with those who adore the Olympics, or maybe you find the rage rising up inside yourself over Chick-fil-A stories. What a bizarre combination for the summer of 2012. It’s like it’s too hot outside so people are just wound up and ready to stab each other with words.

What I find beautiful are stories that reveal something about human nature, something that explains why we feel a certain way and how they impact us emotionally and help us understand how we relate to each other. Few reporters seem to know how to write in a way that touches people’s emotions in a way that isn’t obvious. The jokes I hear from reporters about the Olympics brings out the cancer-to-riches stories, the cliche ones that we expect to get us all teary eyed.

I don’t know about you, but Gabby Douglas’ win got me all teary eyed, but I’m trying to understand why, probably the grace, the sass, the smile, the poise, the sweetness of it all. Much will be written about related to her race, her smile, her hair, her style, her physical abilities, her future. I have not been able to read everything on the Internet, but it appears that there is also a faith angle in her story. Really, go read Christine Scheller’s piece at Urban Faith. And then come back and tell us if the mainstream media is picking up on the important details. How crucial is faith to her story, do you think?

In other news, another female gymnast piece I have been wanting to write about is about a TV story worth watching, an unusual story that could resonate with many people on different levels. ABC’s 20/20 produced a feature on Dominique Moceanu, the youngest female gymnast to win a gold medal, and, as far as I can tell, was one of the most iconic Olympians for women in my age demographic.

Moceanu, who accomplished incredible physical feats, also faced deep emotional hurdles. She tells how all the time while she was training for the Olympics, she didn’t know her own father had given up her disabled sister for adoption. Her sister has no legs but she is also a gymnast/acrobat (no really, watch it).

This intense story was made for TV. It doesn’t focus on Moceanu’s facts or figures but recognizes something deeper. Unfortunately, as is the case of many general stories, it doesn’t recognize an additional faith factor. As Laura Leonard fleshed out in her interview for Christianity Today, Moceanu also has a faith story to tell. For many people, forgiveness and the idea of moving forward is only possible with some higher power.

For Moceanu, it was her Christian faith that carried her through. Ignoring that reality is like ignoring the surgery she might have had to repair a knee. Ignoring such a glaring point of her life does a disservice to everyone, the audience, the reader, other journalists and to Moceanu. The story might be true and accurate but it certainly isn’t thorough.

It’s the stories we don’t expect that surprise and delight us, and the challenge for sports and religion reporters is to do that in a way that doesn’t make religion cliche. I eat up Olympic stories like Samuel L. Jackson does, tweeting with little filter. I don’t care if other sports junkies already know the back stories and just want to know the stats, the performance numbers or the number of medals. I want to know about their families, how they grew up, what they had to overcome whether physical or emotional, whether they are like me (faith, skin color, sex, body) or if I can learn from them. You know, the stuff Bob Costas feeds us like candy.

The beauty of the internet is that if you want more info, you can dig more deeply either through Twitter, niche blogs or other formats. The challenge for general audience outlets like NBC is to figure out how to tell both the general and the deep, the religion when it’s relevant or even when it’s just simply interesting.

During the 1996 Olympics, I read everything I could get my hands on related to the female gymnasts, so watching women’s gymnastics now makes me feel like a little kid again. It’s fascinating how little girls like her Moceanu’s sister (and me) idolized Moceanu and wanted so badly to be a gymnast, but her family and faith made all the difference in the world, both in her upbringing and how she handles it now.

Journalists: don’t make the same mistake with Gabby Douglas. She’s worth more than a surface-level, faith-free story.

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  • Rebecca

    It would be nice if Christianity Today mentioned Moceanu was Eastern Orthodox…You’d expect them to “Get Religion” too.

  • Roberto

    I saw the Moceanu story/profile on HBO’s “Real Sports” and wondered about a possible faith angle, which, almost needless to say, didn’t come up.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Rebecca, thanks for your passive aggressive note. Good detail, though my post was about the overall point about coverage of athlete’s faith. Missing the forest for the trees?

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Roberto, good call. I didn’t realize it was on HBO, too. Her book likely spurred a few media stories.

  • Rebecca

    Wow, Molly, control the snark. I wasn’t being passive aggressive. As an Orthodox Christian, I feel much the same about Western Christian media as it seems Christians/religious folk in general feel about the media. I enjoyed your post about making sure Gabby’s faith didn’t get lost, saw the link to CT and noticed that her faith was not accurately portrayed.

    Is it wrong of me to have noted that? Lighten up and/or knock off the inconsistency.

  • Rebecca

    My apologies. Sarah, control the snark.

  • Cathy G.

    Gabby’s great, but my favorite religion (or maybe more spirituality) story these Olympics has been swimmer Anthony Ervin. This Rolling Stone article gives a good overview, but I wish it had a little more detail on the church he visited, what role faith had in his childhood, if any, and what he practices now (I’ve heard he’s Buddhist).

  • Julia

    Banks says the focus on Douglas’ hair “illustrates, in a painful manner, how black people continue to hold on to outdated ideas that are no less problematic today as they were in the past.

    Kind of off topic, but what is this all about in the link provided to Urban Faith?

    It seems like hairstyles and the outdated use of scrunchies are bigger topics in the gymnastic world than religion.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Rebecca, can you tell I’m overly sensitive since I felt like the other stuff was ignored? Thanks for fleshing out the argument. :-)

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Cathy G., that’s pretty interesting. Saving that for the possible follow up file.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Julia, I’m not sure I can articulate it, but I think the discussions about hair represent something larger about race. I don’t see a faith connection, but I imagine Urban Faith, which offers interesting observations on race, might have picked up on that.

  • Mike

    Sarah, if you are going to drive clicks to your employer’s website, why not be more responsive to the journalism question of how her specific religion–Eastern Orthodox–was completely left out of your employer’s story. Isn’t that a significant journlam error, the kind GetReligion would point out in other situations?

  • Rebecca

    Re: Mike’s comment–
    I think you can say, without evidence to the contrary, that her Eastern Orthodoxy was left out by CT on purpose, because it is a form of ancient Christianity with which modern Protestants are particularly uncomfortable. That makes it then a journalist error. It conveys a bias, a big one.

    If a secular news organization were to completely leave out such information, there would be, and always is on this page, an outcry of journalistic ignorance or bias.

    On this, crickets…

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for your thoughts. We tend to focus our critiques on mainstream outlets. And I work for Christianity Today, so there’s that aspect. Hope that makes sense.